Saturday’s win over Coventry signalled a last hurrah for some Cambridge players likely to move on after the club’s committee announced it would no longer be paying them (click for club statement). I would expect Cambridge to stay in National One this season but future seasons will see them finding the level that their playing resources can bear which may be in the same Division or perhaps somewhere lower.
Unfortunately other clubs that have been forced down this route haven’t fared well; Barking hit financial problems and parted with their coaching team and a number of players earlier this season and now sit bottom of National One having been just minutes from promotion* to the Championship at the end of the 2010/11 campaign.
*Barking lost to London Scottish who scored in the last minute of the final game of the season to leapfrog the Essex club and gain promotion
A more extreme example is Manchester who in 2009 had to stop paying coaches and players while in the Championship. Since then they have lost over 80 consecutive games and are currently at the bottom of National Three (Midlands).
My recent article about paying players at Level Five and below (click here to read it) expressed the view that it was unsustainable, and it is increasingly clear that the professional or semi-professional model will only work at the very highest levels. There just isn’t enough money in the game so clubs are dependent on benefactors and sponsors just to put a team out every weekend.
When someone comes along prepared to put serious amounts of cash into a club to pay players and effectively buy promotion it is easy for a committee to accept the offer. But the leagues are littered with clubs that have tasted success only for the money-man to move on with a consequent tumble down the divisions back to where they started.
A prime example in Eastern Counties was Hadleigh, who had a meteoric rise from Eastern Counties Division Six (Level 13) in 1991 to London Division Two (Level 6) in 2004. Bolstered by a stream of Colchester and Wattisham based Army players they won the Suffolk Cup three times but lost many friends at local clubs. When the financial backers moved on the players disappeared too, spelling disaster for the club who, after a series of heavy defeats, took the decision in 2008 to withdraw from the division and start again at the bottom of the league structure. The club was very close to disappearing altogether, but thanks to the perseverance, enthusiasm and sheer hard work of a dedicated group of volunteers, Hadleigh survived and three seasons later they are challenging for promotion from Eastern Counties to with a squad of home-grown players with an ever-growing youth and mini section to secure their future.
This kind of fall is unlikely to happen at Cambridge. Although the club had a similarly fast rise up the leagues from London Three to National One in five years, there was always the back-up of a strong youth and mini section that could produce high-calibre players such as Alex Goode (Saracens and England Saxons) and Luke Fielden (Newcastle Falcons). Not all of the current squad are being paid so quite a few should stay at the club, and even with the talismanic Bob Crooks having to be let go I would expect Cambridge to be able to maintain their position, if not in National One then certainly in National Two.
The Cambridge club committee have made a brave decision and my instinct says that it is the right one. Clubs spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on player and coach salaries is not sustainable when there is no hope of generating an equivalent income from entrance fees, bar sales and pre-match functions, so relying on the goodwill of big-money sponsors that can be all too transient.
I will be interested to see how many other clubs at Levels Three and Four follow Cambridge’s example over the next few years.
– Cambridge still the best in the East posted 17 April 2011
– Ask not what your club can do for you posted 3 January 2012